The roller-coaster trajectory of India-US relations cannot be correlated to changes in the US leadership. It transcended party and personal considerations to be shaped by geopolitical developments, twists and turns in the priorities of the two countries, and global milestones such as the Cold War, the emergence of a unipolar world, terrorism, climate change, rise of China, and now the coronavirus. But some Presidents like John F Kennedy, Bill Clinton, George Bush and Barack Obama stand out as friends of India, regardless of their party affiliations. Even Donald Trump, with all his idiosyncrasies, was seen as a friend. While India had a romantic attachment to the Democrats, the Republicans have also made a considerable impact on the relationship.
The victory of the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris team in 2020 came as a relief to the entire world because Donald Trump's unconventional style and his image of a bull in a china shop, with a method in his madness, had bewildered the world as he turned the world upside down by dismantling the post-Cold War architecture of the world, walking away from global commitments, antagonising allies, and confronting China and Russia. Towards the end of his term, his mishandling of the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic meltdown and the racial conflict gave him the image of an enemy of the people and led to his fall. But Trump’s chemistry with Modi and the strengthening of India-US relationship till the end of Modi’s first term stood out as an exception. The formalisation of a major defence partnership and concretisation of the Quad took place during the Trump administration. But India also heaved a sigh of relief that an unpredictable and reckless US President was out of the way.
Joe Biden takes over at a time when India and the US have evolved from being “estranged” to “engaged”, and now “embracing” democracies. But the future relationship will depend more on the coincidence and complementarity of interests rather than on the personality of the President. But the record of Biden’s long public service and his solid support for India on crucial questions like the nuclear deal and the India-US strategic partnership provides for a comfort zone for Modi. Much should not be read into the personal connections of Biden and Harris in India, but those will be a help rather than a hindrance.
The immediate agenda of Biden includes controlling the coronavirus and dealing with the Chinese threat in the Indo-Pacific region, and both the issues are of equal concern to the two countries. On China, Biden will be less strident than Trump, but equally determined. But he will welcome the agreement signed with India during the 2+2 conference and also the formation of the Quad as China looms large as an adversary of the US and India.
In a comprehensive Foreign Affairs article titled Why America must lead again earlier this year, Biden wrote, “The next US President will have to address the world as it is in January 2021, and picking up the pieces will be an enormous task. He or she will have to salvage our reputation, rebuild confidence in our leadership, and mobilise our country and our allies to rapidly meet new challenges. There will be no time to lose.”
Alluding to the security in the Indo-Pacific, he said, “We need to fortify our collective capabilities with democratic friends beyond North America and Europe by with Australia, Japan, and South Korea, and deepening partnerships from India to Indonesia to advance shared values in a region that will determine the United States’ future.” He also said that he will take steps to unite the democracies of the world as the previous Democratic administration had done.
Biden’s decision to return to the Paris Agreement and his declaration that the US would be carbon-free by 2050 will be universally acclaimed. It will be, however, hard for India to emulate the American example as we will require the use of fuel fossils much longer. India and other developing countries will continue to insist on the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and the voluntary nature of commitments under the Paris Agreement. But since the ultimate objective is the protection of the environment, the differences will be manageable. Much will depend on what is expected of India to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases.
“I'll continue to believe and continue what I've long called for including — standing with India and confronting the threats it faces in its own region along its borders," Joe Biden said to the Indian-American community on the occasion of India's 74th Independence Day. He also alluded to the fact that in 2005, he was "leading the efforts to approve the historic civil nuclear deal with India". Biden also brought up his running mate Kamala Harris's India connection and recalled his pronouncements from 15 years ago, saying, "I said that if the US and India became closer friends and partners, then the world will be a safer place.”
Biden’s links with Pakistan and the award of the Hilal-i-Pakistan, the country's second-highest civilian honour to him "in recognition of his consistent support for Pakistan" belong to another era. Though the US is currently engaged with Pakistan to get the American soldiers out of Afghanistan, India and Pakistan have been completely de-hyphenated by the US. The Cold War linkage with Pakistan and the partnership to battle terrorism have long ended. But Biden will not be strident in his criticism of Pakistan on its handling of terrorism.
Trade was a contentious issue during the Trump Presidency. Trump removed the trade concessions for India as a developing country and it may not be realistic to expect Biden to reverse that decision immediately. He may pursue the negotiations on a trade agreement with India, which had made some progress. Biden has talked of a “middle-class foreign policy”, which gives primacy to promoting export of American goods to the whole world and India’s huge market will be an attraction for him. Similarly, Biden may encourage imports from India to replace the Chinese supply chain, which has been disrupted. He is also expected to liberalise visa policies for Indian professionals.
One point of concern is the activism of Democrats in general and Biden and Harris, in particular, is their championship of human rights, religious freedom and democratic practices. Trump closed his eyes to such matters even when riots took place in India when he was dining at the Rashtrapati Bhavan. Biden and Harris may see some issues in India in conflict with the standards they expect of India.
The best change for the better is that the US will have a consistent, rational and responsible administration, with which India can do business. There may be more grey areas than black and white in bilateral relations, but there will be greater room for negotiations, discussions and reconciliation, a basic requirement in the management of international relations.